Writer and Director Jordan Peele goes two for two in original modern horrors with black humour, dread and jump scares.
Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) are vacationing with their children Jason (Evan Alex) and Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) in Santa Cruz, alongside wealthier friends the Tylers (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker). Gabe is clamouring to bring the family down to the beachfront for some old fashioned fun but a traumatic childhood incident makes Adelaide reluctant and wary – she doesn’t want her children to go wandering and end up in the hall of mirrors like she did. That night back at their lakeside cabin they’re disturbed to find a family standing motionless at the end of their driveway. Soon they are under siege and taken captive by their malevolent doppelgangers that come from a world beneath.
Peele takes his time with the set up, knowing the importance of the audience investing in the protagonists of a horror film before subjecting them to anything unspeakable. He neatly side steps the pitfall of the dozens of shlocky horrors that litter Netflix, populated almost exclusively by characters too stupid or unlikeable to live (characters like the Tylers for instance). The Wilsons are a nice, ordinary, middle-class American family that you’re rooting for from the start (although their “tethered” doppelgängers illicit pangs of sympathy along the way too). A 1986 prologue gives us a glimpse of the younger Adelaide’s terrifying encounter in the hall of mirrors at the pier and an old ad for anti-poverty campaign Hands Across America gives an impenetrable hint at the shape of things to come. Plenty of worrisome signs foreshadow the mayhem that is lurking but US takes a meandering route to unleashing the murder and the weirdness.
Once the mysterious family appear at the end of the driveway the tension creeps rapidly and menacingly higher. Winston Duke’s character tries to wave them off, first with studied polite niceties followed by impotent machismo and a baseball bat. Once the rabbit is off and running the film crashes forward over the audience, yanking them by the shirt front to keep up. Crucially, the audience is treated in a grown up manner and are never ahead of the family in terms of knowledge. As one batshit surreal encounter follows another, you’re right there alongside them and by the close of the film you’re left to put all the pieces together yourself.
It’s fair to say that US operates on a number of different levels and leaves a lot open for audience interpretation and analysis. The most obvious is the double meaning in the title, not only indicating the protagonists doppelgangers but also the letters signifying the United States. Perhaps they are their own worst enemy, collectively as well as individually? Certainly there are parallels with a country that is wracked with paranoia and antipathy towards the “other”. There are plenty of other recurring motifs, cryptic references and nods to pop-culture throughout the film that might be carrying secret meanings, suggesting that a second viewing is almost compulsory to fully appreciate.
Lupita Nyong’o puts in a superb pair of performances as both Adelaide and her doppelgänger, “Red”, and should rank up there alongside Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver for iconic horror performances. However, the voice she adopted for Red has received criticism from some disability action groups such as RespectAbility, as it was reportedly modelled on the symptoms of spasmodic dysphonia. Winston Duke as Gabe elicits some laughs in the darkly funny moments with his “aw dad” sense of humour. Young actors Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph bring impressive menace to their alter egos too, with Wright Joseph affecting a rictus grin and Alex the mannerisms of a pyromaniac chimp.
Composer Michael Abels, who also scored Peele’s first outing Get Out, provides a heart thumping soundtrack of thudding percussion, punctuated by strange latin chanting that practically sounds like summoning something very evil. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) displays his horror chops by framing some deliciously morbid shots. The claustrophobic single camera tracking often puts one in mind of The Shining with the way it gently glides around, setting up scares and leaving the spines of the audience slick with sweat.
While US is more conventional a horror tale than Get Out, it is an excellent follow up and with an opening weekend take of $71 million, it is the highest grossing opening weekend for an original horror film, proving that Peele’s commercial appeal is no flash in the pan either.